August 11th, 2011

book - pile

The NPR List: Let's do the numbers

The NPR List of Top 100 SF/F Books, as previously discussed here, is now out. So, how did the books by women do? (Spoiler: it's pretty grim.)

  • There are 15 books by women on the list, or 15%.

  • None of these are in the top 10.

  • Only one is in the top 20, and it's #20 (Frankenstein by Mary Shelley).

  • In the top 50, there are 6 books by women (12%) and 6 female authors (16% out of 38 unique authors listed). In comparison, of the top 50 books in the poll, 22% were by women. (I don't have data on the authors to hand.)

  • Out of 75 unique authors on the NPR list, 14 are women, or 30%. The only woman with two books listed is Ursula K. LeGuin.

Why? Well, all the same reasons I listed before: the narrow definition of SF/F (excluding horror, paranormal romance -- except for Diana Gabaldon, apparently -- and YA, all subgenres with a stronger representation of women), the "all time" nature of the list, the fact that the list of nominees wasn't terribly diverse to start with. At first glance, the percentage of women with books in the top 100 doesn't seem too bad, but if you drill down a little bit, it seems to have more to do with a lack of variety among the male authors: there are 85 books by men on the list, but only 61 unique authors are represented (including two books co-authored by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle). Ray Bradbury, Neil Gaiman, and Neal Stephenson have a whopping four books each on the list. That's almost as many books as all the women combined. Four others -- Isaac Asmiov, Robert Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke, and Larry Niven (counting his co-author credits) -- have three, and there are many others with two. To think that only one women wrote multiple books worthy of inclusion on this list is pretty sad. Not to mention unlikely.

(Also: Neal Stephenson? Really? I mean, I enjoyed Snow Crash and The Diamond Age as much as anyone, and to be fair I haven't read Anathem yet, but... really? Four of the best SF/F books of all time?)

In retrospect, I think this makes the list look better, and a potential sign of progress given its focus on recent titles. I do wish that NPR would make their raw nomination list available -- how many women were winnowed out in the selection process? How many nominees were cut because of their strict genre rules? Then we might have something more interesting to work with. More data, I need more data!

So, in a nutshell: not encouraging, not surprising. Earlier this year, The Guardian ran a similar "reader favorites" SF/F list, which somehow I missed until [community profile] ladybusiness posted about it in a special linkspam about women on SF/F lists (scroll down to May 2011 on the timeline for several good posts on the topic) with similar results; probably the best thing to come out of that debate is this post from author Nicola Griffith, in which she proposes "The Russ Pledge":

The single most important thing we (readers, writers, journalists, critics, publishers, editors, etc.) can do is talk about women writers whenever we talk about men. And if we honestly can't think of women 'good enough' to match those men, then we should wonder aloud (or in print) why that is so. If it's appropriate (it might not be, always) we should point to the historical bias that consistently reduces the stature of women's literature; we should point to Joanna Russ's How to Suppress Women's Writing, which is still the best book I've ever read on the subject. We should take the pledge to make a considerable and consistent effort to mention women's work which, consciously or unconsciously, has been suppressed. Call it the Russ Pledge. I like to think she would have approved.

I still haven't read Russ's book, but it's becoming more and more clear that I need to. It keeps coming up in these debates, and it must be for good reason. But regardless, this seems like an excellent way forward. Always, always raise the question: where are the women? And other marginalized groups as well -- at first glance, this list looks awfully white, and I don't even want to think about other representation issues. Nothing will ever change if we don't ask the questions, and I don't think there's much doubt that things need to change.

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Dragon Age/FFXII crossover -- the Blight comes to Ivalice and the three nations have to unite against it.

The Deep Roads could totally have an exit in the Zertinan Caverns, from which an assortment of Grey Wardens and Companions might emerge to help fight the darkspawn. Dragons versus airships. Zevran flirting with Ashe. The corrupting properties of Mist. Someone becomes a Grey Warden. (Vaan? Balthier? Basch???) All kinds of shenanigans come to mind.

Please tell me all the reasons this is a terrible idea that would never work.

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